Gunsmithing Horror Stories: Don't Let This Happen To You

It all started innocently enough.  My friend Mike, a novice to firearms ownership and proud holder of a new CCW permit, bought himself a beautiful stainless steel Colt Gold Cup Trophy Model (1911).  Not satisfied with the gun out of the box, he took it to a local gun store.  To my knowledge, the store has a good reputation for gunsmithing work.  I’ve even had some work done on my own 1911 at the same store without difficulty.  Based on Mike’s horror story, however, it would seem I got lucky.

Mike took his .45 to get a beavertail, ambidextrous frame safety, mag well, and extended slide release installed.  All of these parts needed to be fitted and polished to match the high-polished stainless finish of the Gold Cup.  He left the gun with a salesperson who assured him the gun would be well cared for.  Three weeks later, he called to see if the gun was finished.  It wasn’t even started, but one day later, all the work had been done, Mike was informed.  He went back to the store to pick it up. Mike’s pictures show what awaited him.  The gun was covered in scratches.  None of the parts were properly fitted, and the safety was tight. 

When Mike called back to find out what had gone wrong, the litany of excuses he received were like none he’d ever heard: It was impossible to do the work on a stainless gun like that without scratching it, he was informed.  It was necessary to grind down the hammer to clear the beaver tail correctly, he was told, and the beavertail – a Series 70 – was mated to the Series 80 gun in attempt to do Mike a favor.  The gun was also “made incorrectly” at the factory, Mike was informed, which means the holes in the frame didn’t line up correctly. According to Mike, an examination of the pistol revealed a far different problem.  Apart from the finish issues, too much material was ground off the frame of the gun, which in turn caused the beavertail to fit incorrectly.

When Mike complained, he was told his gun would be repaired at no charge.  When he next picked it up, the finish had been corrected.  Now, however, a host of function problems reared their ugly heads.  The slide catch had never been properly fitted to the gun, meaning the slide would not rack with a magazine in place.  Magazines would no longer fall free of the gun when the magazine released was pressed.  Worse, cartridges were being nicked when rounds were chambered.

“I examined the gun,” Mike told me, “and the mechanism inside the gun was taking chips out of the flat part of the bullets while advancing.  Also, someone had placed the spring inside the gun on the full length guide rod backward, effectively chewing up my guide rod.  On top of that, the beavertail was installed incorrectly.  The hammer is hitting the beavertail, preventing the slide from moving properly.”

As you can imagine, my friend called the gun store again and complained.  Then he took it to another gunsmith for a second opinion.  That smith explained that material would have to be welded inside the beavertail, and then milled down correctly.  The mag well would have to be fitted, the safety would have to be corrected, and a few other items would have to be adjusted and refitted.  The total cost – figuring in an eight month wait time – could be as high as $500. Placing yet another call to the shop that did the work incorrectly, my friend Mike was informed that the smith who worked on his gun had been doing work “for forty years.”
“I have to tell you,” Mike said, “that doesn’t make me feel better, especially given the shoddy work that was just done.”  As the conversation went downhill from there, the smith was so incensed that he agreed to cover the bill for having the gun fixed at the second shop. Then he banned my friend Mike from his store, telling him never to set foot on the premises again.

What can we learn from this horror story?  How can we prevent a costly, time-consuming problem such as this one from occurring?  It’s a common enough occurrence to have work done on a pistol, particularly a 1911-pattern .45.  In what ways can you safeguard your property and your wallet when you need to have something done?  The following are some general guidelines for having gunsmith work performed.  While these tips aren’t all-encompassing, they should help the next time you have to take your firearm to the shop:

Choose a shop with a good reputation.  This won’t always help you, as the shop in question had a veteran smith and a good reputation to go with it, but it’s usually a good indicator.  Whenever possible, take your gun only to those shops that have provided similar services to people you know.  Where your friends happy with the work done? Would they recommend the shop to others?

Choose chain stores with caution.  Many large chain sporting good stores that sell firearms also offer gunsmithing services. This is a hit or miss proposition.  Just as the folks in the orange vests behind the counter might have firearms knowledge or might not, beyond the basics, the smiths employed at such shops might or might not know what they are doing.  Locally, I don’t dare take my gun to be serviced by one of the large chains.  However, you might have one near you whose smith has a reputation for doing good work.  It’s a choice you’ll have to make on a case by case basis. How many pieces of mythology and folklore have you heard being imparted from behind gun counters in gun stores across the country?  Some folks employed in the capacity of gunsmiths or even gun salesmen just don’t know what they’re talking about.

Get it in writing.  Before you have work done, make sure you get a receipt or other documentation detailing precisely what it is you expect to have done, as well as what this is supposed to cost you.  The work to be performed must be clearly defined so both parties know what to expect.  If I’ve learned anything when dealing with matters of commerce, it is always, always get everything in writing.  Word of mouth is useless when it comes time to settle legal matters.  Words on paper will always carry the day.

Take photographs before and after the work is done.  My friend Mike is a talented amateur photographer, so it didn’t surprise me when he took pictures of his gun both before and after the work was performed.  I don’t know if I would have thought to do that before hearing his horror story.  When you have a gun worked on, take the time to snap a few pictures of its condition before it goes into the shop.  Make sure these are time-stamped in some way.  (For example, you could photograph the gun on top of that day’s paper.) That way you’ll be able to compare the condition of the gun before and after, in case something goes wrong.

Be polite and respectful.  If you have work done on a gun and there is some problem, give the shop the benefit of the doubt when you deal with them.  Politely and calmly explain what has happened.  In most cases, a good smith will be very motivated to correct the problem and make you a satisfied customer.  Don’t start off angry or you’ll just put him on the defensive.

Don’t be afraid to get a second opinion.  People and their skills vary.  When you shop to have work done, don’t be afraid to go to multiple stores to get estimates and discuss the work with the smiths involved. You may not always have multiple options locally, but if you do, this is a wise move.  After the fact, if there is some problem, get a professional opinion before you go back to the store that performed the work.  That way, you’ll be better informed when discussing the problem and its possible solutions.

Do your homework.  Depending on how you intend to use your gun, a lot of the accessories a gunsmith might try to sell you simply aren’t necessary.  Research these topics before the fact.  Publications like this one, as well as countless online discussion sites and reference books, will give you a better idea of what is necessary and what is simply optional where your gun is concerned.

By taking a few simple precautions and informing yourself before the fact, you can minimize the potential risks while getting gunsmithing work performed.  In most cases, the work will be performed to your satisfaction and your firearm will be better off for it.  Don’t forget this as you move forward.  Horror stories are just that–exceptions to the rule.  Don’t let them happen to you.